Stanford University professor on how her theory has been misinterpreted
Carol Dweck is education’s guru of the moment. The US academic’s “growth mindset” theory has taken schools on both sides of the Atlantic by storm.
When TES met the Stanford University psychology professor at the Festival of Education at Wellington College last week, the mere mention of her name was sending teachers into shivers of excitement.
But the woman herself is refreshingly modest about the success of her philosophy. “You never know how influential your idea is going to be,” she says, smiling. “It’s really gratifying that people have resonated to it.”
Like all good ideas, Professor Dweck’s is essentially a simple one – it says that an individual’s learning is shaped by whether they believe their intelligence is fixed or can be changed (see panel, below right).
And it seems to have flicked a switch in thousands of teachers’ heads. The words “growth mindset” have been enough to guarantee standing room only in meetings at recent UK education conferences.
Professor Dweck attributes the popularity of the theory in Britain to the fact that it presents an alternative to the culture of “testing, testing, testing”, which teachers and their students are finding increasingly frustrating. Instead, it offers pupils “something they can use in their lives”, she says, rather than “just filling them with information”.
A means of marginalisation?
Inevitably, the backlash has begun. Writing in this week’s TES, British psychologist Tim O’Brien says Professor Dweck’s theories could be “used against certain groups of learners as a tool for labelling, blame and exclusion”.
“The adolescent learner with emotional difficulties who used to get criticised in the staffroom for ‘having a chip on her shoulder’ now has a far more respectable research-based label to use against her – she’s got a fixed mindset,” Dr O’Brien writes.
He adds that although Professor Dweck’s theory does not set out to marginalise students, there is a “distinct likelihood” that it will have this effect.
She is visibly saddened to hear that her work has been interpreted in this way. “Teachers used to say, ‘Here’s a student who’s not very clever, they can’t really learn’,” she says. “The whole idea [of the growth mindset] was to say, ‘No, they can’. They can gain intellectual ability if you’re teaching them in the right way…It’s the educator’s responsibility to foster these attitudes, rather than labelling or stigmatising students for not having them.”
But Professor Dweck admits she was already concerned that some in education had misunderstood her theory. These teachers were thinking “that’s a smart kid, they can learn; that’s not a smart kid, they can’t learn”, she says.
“Teachers often [think] students they consider clever have everything good, but they may not see that a [bright] student doesn’t like extra challenges or cannot take criticism or setbacks,” she adds. “So they are actually doing a disservice to the kids they consider clever by not challenging them and not teaching them how to use feedback.”
When she met TES, Professor Dweck was planning to use her week-long visit to the UK to advise teachers on translating her theory into everyday practice. “Part of it is teaching kids about the way their brains work,” she says, adding that teachers should explain to pupils that “when you do hard problems in maths you become smarter in maths”.
Teachers should also respond to students’ mistakes in a positive way because they are “opportunities for learning,” she says. “When adults react to kids’ mistakes as a big problem, a cause for anxiety, the kids don’t develop a growth mindset.”
And it is not just teachers’ reactions that Professor Dweck is worried about. She tells TES that no matter how many schools adopt the growth mindset theory, governments must avoid the temptation to use it as a basis for assessing them. “We’ve told policymakers that wouldn’t be a good idea,” she says.
Read the full feature on growth mindset in the 26 June issue of TES. You can read it on your tablet or phone, or by downloading the TES Reader app for Android or iOS. Or pick it up at all good newsagents.